A (Pen)rosy vision for 2012?

Believe it or not, fewer people are expected to visit the UK in 2012 than they did in 2011. That’s right, despite the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this summer, the UK’s tourism agency predicts a fall in people coming from overseas. The eyes of the world will be on Britain but, it seems, they won’t be here. At least not immediately.

Tourism Minister John Penrose, in his constituency office near Weston-super-Mare’s promenade, acknowledges the rise in visiting sports fans will be eclipsed by the fall in those who would rather see the Mall as a highway for Kate Middleton than Paula Radcliffe. However, he still sees the year ahead as Britain’s global charm offensive.

“We’re trying to advertise Britain as furiously as we can to really promote the country. No one’s sure how the figures will go this year. The really big chance though is if we can get people to look at the UK, even if they’re not visiting in 2012, and think ‘that looks amazing, that looks great, I’d like to go’. Then the big opportunity comes in 2013-14.”

It’s taken long enough, but Penrose believes politicians have finally come to understand the importance of tourism to the UK economy. “It’s a really efficient way of delivering rapid growth at a time of austerity. You can employ a lot of people quicker than most sectors can.” You’d expect a minister to big-up his brief but, officially the fifth-largest industry, tourism also has the potential to achieve that thing that politicians love talking about but never seem to achieve – the “rebalancing” of the economy, both in geography (away from the south-east) and sector (from financial services). “It ticks all the boxes.”

In practice it’s another matter. “People love coming to London. Persuading them to leave to go to other bits of the country has always been a difficulty.” Predictably, he cites Jubilee street parties and the torch relay – Oxford is Day 52 – as ways of “spreading the joy”. Cornmarket Street’s tea shops can benefit from taking part in a 20.12% discount campaign to boost domestic tourism as the torch passes.

A marketing campaign branded ‘GREAT’ – the biggest ever of its kind – is underway abroad, but if people aren’t going to come then making Brits stay is a priority. “We’re going to be mounting this advertising campaign saying ‘Why on earth, in 2012, would you want to go abroad?’ The Diamond Jubilee isn’t happening in Greece, the Olympics aren’t happening in Spain. We’re just trying to remind ourselves of the amazing stuff we’ve got on our own front doorstep.”

During the Royal Wedding – “more Disney than Disney” – Penrose, 47, was interviewed on David Letterman’s US chat show. “I only realised afterwards there are Presidential candidates in America who would kill for the sort of slot I lucked into.”

In normal times his role would be fairly unremarkable but since the election he’s been thrown into Britain’s most important stories.

Last year was a success as visitors increased 2 percent, helped by the wedding. The other time Britain made international news bulletins was during the riots. “It hasn’t had a lasting impact.”  The image of the reserved law-abiding Brit is intact, he says.

Underlying the optimism, however, is the fact that the majority of tourists arrive from Europe. Ah yes, Europe. He makes a good point about how making Britain the top ‘place to visit’ for the “curious new middle classes” of the BRIC nations, who were the significant risers last year, is important, but Europe undeniably matters most and an economic pandemic is at large. The continent is also irked by the Prime Minister’s treaty veto. Penrose denies this makes any difference but jokes “it may affect whether President Sarkozy comes to Britain on his summer holidays.”

His Culture, Media and Sport Department only contains fellow Conservative ministers. If there was a Lib Dem does he think they would be screaming not to damage relations any further? “Actually I think you’ll find a very strong degree of agreement that the last thing anybody wants to do is to damage Britain’s trading relationships with any country, certainly not in Europe because it’s such an important part of our export markets.”

He’s “surprised by how little strain there is” between the coalition parties but he seems to pity his partners. “What Conservatives need to do is understand why that’s hard for Lib Dems; they have a different inheritance on Europe. We need to respect that and understand it.”

To end, I ask his wishes for the New Year. One is for the economy to grow – at any speed – “it’s going to be very tough”. His other is for foreign non-sports journalists to have a great time at the Olympics. “Then they will write wonderful stories about Britain so that everybody wants to visit us in 2013.”

-Tim Williams

-PHOTO/Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport